Online Child Sexual Abuse: Current Risk Assessments and Treatments for Online Offenders

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Internet sex offenders are described as those who commit sexual offences online. Child sex abuse is a growing concern. Two main forms of cyber-enabled sexual abuse against a child are grooming and proliferation of indecent images of children (IIOC). Online grooming is the use of digital technologies to facilitate either online or offline sexual contact with minors. IIOC Incorporates the use of digital technologies to produce, distribute or possess offensive or indecent images of children. However research suggests that a challenge arisen from this is the definition of indecent. Indecent Images of Children (IIOC) are those including still and moving images and pseudo-photographs which depict children being sexually abused or exploited. The COPINE scale was created in 2008 in order to help define the severity of images or videos recovered from internet sex offenders. This helped to determine levels of indecent images and attempts to rank the severity of indecent images of children using a ten-point rating system. The COPINE scale has helped to shape the five-point scale used by the Sentencing Council for England and Wales. Online activity enables sexual exploitation new opportunities for abuse to occur. The internet is unregulated and gives easy access to collect and distribute IIOC and gives sex offenders a new window to lure in potential victims. Online offenders have been categorised in to many different typologies, these vary from accessing IIOC out of possible curiosity or impulse, those who access images or other illicit content in order to satisfy sexual interest or urges however do not have physical contact with a child, offenders who use IIOC for financial gains by distributing images and finally, those who use the internet to groom children which then leads to contact sexual offenses. Due to these many categories, it would be suggested that online offenders, or subgroups of online offenders, are an individual type of sex offender and treatment and management methods used for contact offenders may not necessarily be efficient in preventing recidivism.

Cognitive distortions are a widely researched area of sex offending literature, particularly sexual offences against child victims. Cognitive distortions can be defined as deviations from, or distortions of, normal thinking. A common theme between offenders of this nature is they tend to try and minimise or neutralise their offences. Minimisations can sometimes consist of offenders assuming they are showing the child love they have never had or that they may enjoy what is happening because of how the body responds. Another common misconception is when the offender believes they have not committed any crimes or created a victim as they themselves have not come into contact with a child physically.

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A theory surrounding why online offenders do not act on their sexually deviant interests is emotional avoidance. Individuals may differ in the closeness or contact they desire in sexual relationships (Quayle, Vaughan, & Taylor, 2006). This research could shed light on why some offenders do not continue onto contact offences. Taking this into consideration, research suggests that online-only offenders would be less likely to be in a romantic relationship than offline offenders. Briggs et al. (2011) suggested that an avoidance of emotional closeness in sexual relationships is potentially responsible for the low rates of contact sexual offending by online offenders despite their high levels of sexual deviancy. Evidence suggests that some people use the Internet to deal with negative emotions such as boredom, anxiety, and depression (Quayle et al., 2006) as a way to socialise when their real-world socialization is dysfunctional. Aligned to these observations, it has been suggested that people who present with problematic Internet use have difficulties in the areas of anxiety, depression, and social isolation, as well as loneliness and intimacy deficits.

Self-distancing is defined as when an offender distances themselves from the offences because they didn’t physically have contact with a child and didn’t create the images, therefore they believe they have not actually caused any harm to the child and no offense has been committed. Offenders may also reject the suggestion that they have a sexual interest in children, offenders completely reject the view that they were creating child victims, actively disidentified from the sex offender label and generally downplayed their accountability relating to their offending activities. Problems met when trying to treat an offender that self-distances is that they refuse to see themselves as a sex offender (Winder & Gough, 2010). Research looks at individual cognitive distortions with a focus on self-distancing by interviewing offenders and reviewing their responses before and after treatment. Common themes expressed by the offenders was that of self-distancing, offenders used terms such as “ah but I didn’t touch anybody, that’s my defence”. Offenders typically tried to downplay their role as a sex offender by pointing out the severity of the images were low and that they had no psychical contact with the children themselves, therefore no one would know, and no one would be victimised. The study focused on how participants distanced themselves specifically from the charge of creating child victims, rejected the offender label for themselves and presented their activities as relatively inoffensive when compared to other, mainly contact crimes (Winder & Gough, 2010). The findings suggest that offenders varied in ways they tried to rationalise and minimise the offence, a common theme used by offenders was the insinuation that children online are unaffected by their pictures being taken. Offenders regularly rejected the label sex offender, by assuming a non-contact position and claiming it is not like contact offenders or those who flash their victims. Further excuses were used to rationalise offences such as own experiences of child abuse and urges (impulsivity)(Winder & Gough, 2010). There is an overlap in views and cognitive distortions between offender groups, therefore some treatments may be applicable to more than one offender type. For example, emotional avoidance and self-distancing are quite similar in the views the offender has about their offences and the victims involved. Therefore, treatment method such as victim empathy and narrative transformation could be implemented to help treat offenders with emotional avoidance or self-distancing cognitive distortions (Quayle et al., 2006; Winder & Gough, 2010).

Treatment and management of offenders may overlap due to cognitive distortions that are evident across offender groups. Research suggest that reduced rates of recidivism are most impacted by cognitive behavioural methods. This type of treatment aims to deal with characteristics such as victim empathy, deviant sexual arousal, intimacy deficits and risk self-management, that are found to support sexual offending. Emotional avoidance and self-distancing in offenders can be difficult to treat and manage as It can be challenging to redirect an offender if their only emotional release or sexual gratification comes from IIOC. This is due to the fact that you cannot substitute these urges or desires for any other form or sexual gratification. Due to the overlap in self-distancing and emotional avoidance, similar treatment and management methods may be effective for both groups. Attending to risk, need, and responsivity factors are a part of the cognitive method of treatment, which indicates that interventions are appropriate to each offenders, offering different treatment programmes that are matched to the risk and needs of individual sex offenders. In order to increase the rate of engagement a range of styles in relation to responsivity needs to be continually monitored and different methods of application applied. Assessment of static and dynamic risks to determine risk of recidivism which can help determine the level of intervention that may be the most effective. Treatment targets are then established which then leads on to responsivity issues needing to be addressed and evaluated during treatment and are dealt with accordingly. Cognitive-behavioural interventions, therefore, aim to replace maladaptive or deviant responses with adaptive, prosocial beliefs and behaviour by targeting specific areas in which offenders are deficient. Cognitive-behavioural interventions also involve skills acquisition and rehearsal, reducing cognitive distortions, developing effective problem-solving strategies, improving social and victim perspective-taking, improving sexual and social relationships, managing affective states, reducing deviant sexual arousal, and developing adaptive thinking processes, affect, and behaviour.

One of the methods of treatment under the cognitive behavioural method is that of victim empathy. Empathy is suggested to be a function that helps to regulate behaviour by suppressing aggressive behaviours due to its connections to prosocial behvaiours. In terms of sexual offenders research suggests that a lack of empathy may create a pathway to sexual offending, by a creating cognitive distortions that allow the offender to ‘ignore’; or with regard to sexual offending behaviour, it is hypothesized that a lack of empathy facilitates sexual offending by permitting cognitive distortions that allow sexual offending to occur despite clear indications of distress on the part of the victim, thus, lack of empathy, at least indirectly, may be associated with sexual offending. Empathy may be defined as the cognitive ability to understand and identify with another’s perspective and the emotional capacity to experience the same feelings as another. Empathy has been found to be influenced by such as cognitive distortions, negative emotions, deviant sexual arousal, and other factors known to be associated with sexual offending. Thus, empathy may be an appropriate target of treatment for sexual offenders. It has also been suggested that targeting victim-specific empathy, rather than general empathy, may be more relevant to sexual offenders (Babchishin et al., 2011). Research has found that child molesters appear to demonstrate significantly greater empathy deficits toward victims of their own sexual offenses, as compared to levels of empathy toward the victims of others’ sexual offenses or empathy in a non-sexual context.

Self-distancing is a growing challenge in treating offenders who have committed online offences. A possible method of treating this would be narrative identity transformation, this is when an offender is helped to create a new identity that does not carry with it the offence their old self used to commit. A part of this treatment is that once the offender has created their new pro-social identity, they need to admit and recognise their old self as one that was an abuser. These kinds of cognitive distortions can sometimes be found in person to person groups. This is where a small number of offenders who trust each other share images between themselves, it is found that images tend to be higher in severity within these kinds of groups. Offenders within P2P groups tend to have the view that because they are only sharing between themselves therefore no one knows including the child and this means no victims were made by them directly. Often offenders who self-distance will reject the label sex offender and may not see themselves as such as they have not had psychical contact with the child. Offenders argue that they were only viewing pictures that have been created by others and then distributed. Online offenders who also have previous contact sexual offenses may be able to be managed with current risk assessment and treatments.

It is, however, unknown as to how these practices can be applied to online-only offenders, therefore, more in depth research and findings of the psychological similarities and dissimilarities between online and offline offenders can aid the understanding of how current risk assessments and treatment may also be applicable to online offenders. If research provides evidence that online offenders are similar to offline offenders in terms of risk factors, characteristics and possible cognitive distortions, then current risk assessment procedures and treatments could be applied.

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Online Child Sexual Abuse: Current Risk Assessments and Treatments for Online Offenders. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 24, 2024, from
“Online Child Sexual Abuse: Current Risk Assessments and Treatments for Online Offenders.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022,
Online Child Sexual Abuse: Current Risk Assessments and Treatments for Online Offenders. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 Jun. 2024].
Online Child Sexual Abuse: Current Risk Assessments and Treatments for Online Offenders [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 25 [cited 2024 Jun 24]. Available from:

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